Codnor Park Reservoir….and ‘The Cut’

Codnor Park Reservoir

The sky is blue, the clouds fluffy and people are fishing – a truly tranquil day. The location? Codnor Park Reservoir, just to the east of Golden Valley, Derbyshire. This was once an important part of the network of canals which facilitated the growth of the coal, iron and steel industries on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border, and helped forge the Industrial Revolution. Coal has been mined in this area from Mediaeval times; indeed, old ‘gob pits’ (a local name for the ‘bell pit’) make walking in the woods a dangerous occupation. There is fragmentary evidence to suggest that coal was mined in Prehistoric times (the presence of a stone axe in one of the shallow coal measures in this region, for example).

All this caused a rush to join the first textile mills of the Derwent Valley to the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill, via Ambergate and Butterley (with its ironworks). So the Cromford Canal was born. It ran into major difficulties (labour disputes and shareholder friction) and was only completed after some technical ‘wizardry’, including the then longest canal tunnel in Great Britain, Butterley Tunnel, which at the time of it’s building was 2,966 yards long. Although Butterley Reservoir fed the western end of the canal, the eastern end was fed by a small reservoir behind the former Newlands Inn at Golden Valley (locally called the ‘top reservoir’) and Codnor Park Reservoir. You can still find a way down to the old canal towpath, and view the blocked off eastern end of Butterley Tunnel. The canal (or ‘The Cut’ as it is called in Golden Valley) is heavily weeded, overhung by mature trees, and very shallow. Nothing at all like the later part of the 19th century, when full canal narrow-boats were propelled through the tunnel – not by horses, because there was no towpath inside the tunnel – but by ‘leggers’, men who laid on the top of the narrow-boats and propelled them along by ‘walking’ along the tunnel roof!

The canal is disused now; no cargoes of iron await shipment at the wharf, just over the Nottinghamshire border. No coal, from where the Riddings anticline brings both the Lower and Middle Coal Measures close to the surface and makes them easy to work, is available for loading (the last local pit is long gone, although opencast mining has been undertaken). The tunnel suffered a roof collapse and was closed in 1900. The eastern and western arms of the canal continued to carry cargo, but the Cromford Canal was closed totally in 1944, during the Second World War.

There is a scheme afoot to restore the canal, for leisure purposes. However, current financial circumstances might well scupper this excellent idea. Until then, the popularity of Codnor Park Reservoir will continue as a fine coarse fishing venue, with many fishing matches taking place during the season. Most anglers ‘weigh-in’ heavy hauls of roach, bream, and perch. There are, of course, local stories of a monster pike (Esox lucius) in ‘the Reser’, but the ones I caught as a boy were all fairly small ‘jack’ pike!

Sometimes you can hear the whistle of a preserved steam train as it travels down the branch line of the Midland Railway, on the opposite side of the reservoir, on its way to the end of the spur at Ironville. As well as a most delightful sight and sound, it also is a reminder of what killed the canals – the rise of the steam railway. In many cases, the new railway companies bought up canals, only to close them and force traffic onto the railways.

There is a close family connection here; not only was my mother born in Golden Valley, but one of my great-grandfathers was a ‘bargee’ (a captain of a canal barge), who had worked his way up from the humble position of ‘legger’ in the Butterley Tunnel.

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